Hear Me Out

What if we just… took care of everybody? No, wait. Hear me out. What if we decided that nobody should go hungry, or be without a safe place to go? What if we decided everybody should have reliable lifelong health care, safe housing, opportunities for meaningful work, the chance to be part of a community, and all the education they wanted? What if we made that the birthright of every American, every human being ever born from here on out?

What would things be like if we decided to do that? If we decided to invest in a world worth living in and everyone living in it?

Would it be paradise? Utopia? Probably not. Humans gonna human. But it’d be a damnsight better than what we’ve got now. Think about it this way. What if all the economic stress in your life right now was gone? No worries how you’re going to pay the rent/mortgage. No stress where your next meal’s coming from, how you’re going to afford your meds, or your tuition, or clothes to wear. How you’re going to help out your parents or feed and clothe your kids or go see a doctor about that thing that’s been making you worry. Feels like a vacation, doesn’t it? Now imagine everyone else is on that same vacation. Oh, sure, there’s work to do. But there’s time to spend quality time with friends and family, time for the important things, the ones that make a life. The things you’ll look back on from your deathbed and be glad that you did them.

Crime would go way down, because without poverty and the misery and stress that go with it there will be less reason for it. Productivity would go up, because people who are rested and who choose to do the work they do get more done than desperate drones living paycheck to paycheck who know how disposable they are. The arts and sciences would thrive. Communities would thrive, too, yours and mine and everyone’s. We could finally turn our attention to climate change, and our crumbling national infrastructure.

The usual answer is that we can’t afford to do that. There’s not enough to go around as it is. But that’s a lie, and everyone knows it. A few hundred people have as much wealth as hundreds of millions. If that wealth were circulating in the economy instead of sitting offshore, everyone would be middle class.

The point is: we can afford it if we decide to. And that brings us to the real question, the one that doesn’t get asked enough.

The real question is: why don’t we decide to do that? 

Why don’t we decide to just take care of everybody, invest in every person and every community, put a floor under everyone, a foundation solid enough to build one hell of a high ceiling on? If we can — and we can — why shouldn’t we?

That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. To me, it seems obvious that we should. I’d think any person of conscience would say that. Wouldn’t you?

How will we do it? How will we pay for it? What is the plan? These are all good questions, with long, complex answers, the minutiae of which could occupy us for years, and will. But for now, for this moment in history, where we stand at a moment of grand possibility for both destruction and renewal, what’s important is to decide where you want to go. What kind of society you think we should build. Figure out what, and put how in the service of that. 

We can work out the details as we go. We’ll surely make mistakes. But the clock’s ticking down, and it’s time to get moving.

What Do We Do When the Cosplay Paramilitaries Come?

Picture this. It’s November 3rd, Anytown USA. Or, if we’re not lucky, Everytown. The high school gym is full of voting machines, touchscreen for the most part. The masked and gloved volunteers have coffee and donuts, donated by moms whose kids now rehearse pandemic protocols along with their active shooter drills. The donuts have red, white, and blue sprinkles. There’s a special room where you can eat them, but everyone just lifts their mask up, changes gloves after. Almost everyone.

At 8am, polls will open. On the sidewalk outside, chalk marks stretch down the block, six feet apart. The air is crisp with autumn chill. There are still Halloween decorations on some of the houses, and the jack-o-lanterns are starting to sag. Candy wrappers turned inside out can be seen among the red and gold and brown of leaves just begun to rot in the gutters. So far the sky is clear, but the weatherman says storm’s a-coming.

By 7:30 early voters have begun to line up. Some of them like voting in person. Others just don’t trust the post office since the layoffs and budget cuts last month. They take their marks, chatting with neighbors or playing with their phones. Since the second spike, everyone wears a mask.

At 7:58 a cargo van pulls up and parks. Six men get out, who are also wearing masks, along with Kevlar vests, sunglasses, and AR-15s. Four have sidearms in holsters clipped to their belts. All six are white. They have armbands with American flags rendered in black and white and the words Election Security printed below. They line up across from the front of the line to get into the polling station, where they have a clear line of sight.

“Attention citizens!” says the leader, a bearded man of late middle age. He wears a ballcap from the Navy ship his father served on. “We are here to observe this polling station and make sure no voter fraud takes place! This is a peaceful action, and no lawful citizen exercising his rights is in danger!”

Phones are by ears now, as voters call 911 en masse. Harried operators and units available to respond are overwhelmed. This isn’t the only polling station where this is happening. This is a widespread, if uncoordinated effort, one telegraphed for weeks in the press and on the internet, but that has yet caught law enforcement and the media flat-footed come the day, because America is not the kind of place where things like this happen.

But it is now, and maybe it always was. 

***

Let’s get something straight before we go any further. The moment Donald Trump is no longer President, he will be indicted, arrested, and taken to jail. However far down the memory hole it’s fallen, the Mueller report by itself lays out a case in painstaking detail — the only reason it did not take the step of recommending prosecution is because of the Justice Department policy of not prosecuting a sitting President. Even if a Biden Justice Department were to reprise Obama’s mistake in not investigating and prosecuting his predecessor (Remember W’s war crimes? Good times), the state of New York is ready to go with racketeering and fraud and corrupt organization charges. Trump knows it, too. It drives every decision he makes.He’ll die in office or he’ll die in prison. And since he doesn’t care about anyone else in the world besides himself, he’ll do whatever it takes, up to and including inciting civic violence and unrest, to stay in office. No hesitation, no compunction. Hell, no forethought, even. His party has already started accepting and training volunteer poll watchers. If/when they decide to arm themselves, the party will throw up its hands and claim plausible deniability, and by the time the dust settles the election will be over and called.

And let’s face it. There’s a small but hardcore segment of the population that’s just dying to get out there and intimidate their fellow Americans with their long guns and body armor. Some of them got a taste for it in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in law enforcement. Some of them are just concerned about the oppression white men and Christians face in these disturbingly diverse, increasingly dis-United States. At least a few just really want to shoot somebody. 

What they all want is to bring America back to its roots, its foundation. Its fundamental state, if you will. In which only white men can vote, and everyone else remembers their place and stays in it. They might even, through the private prison industry, reprise something like slavery. How else are we supposed to compete with cheap labor from China?

First, though, they have to cement their lock on power. They have to suppress enough votes to carry one more election. If they can do that, they can lock down the courts and gerrymander districts for another decade after the Census, and secure the White Christian Man at the top of the food chain for the rest of history. Which won’t be long, because these jokers are going to handle climate change about as well as they’ve handled Coronavirus, in that they’ll actively make it worse and a lot of people and species will die unnecessarily as a result.

But they don’t believe in climate change, or they don’t care, or they just can’t see how it matters if it’s not them and theirs on top of shit mountain, watching their turds tumble down on those who God loves a little less.

***

Do I really think people will show up with guns to intimidate voters? Who the fuck knows in this crazy crap-shoot world? But I know the GOP has been willing to engage in wholesale voter roll purges, and make it super-hard for the wrong voters to register, and draw gerrymandered districts that should be prosecuted as crimes against geometry and that strain even partisan credulousness in their purpose-built geographic contortions. I know the Presdent’s son-in-law, de facto chief of staff, and fellow overprivileged incompetent failure Jared Kushner has already floated the idea of delaying the November election.

I also know that somewhere around 40% of Americans are on board for all of it, the demographic rump of white Christian Americans who like the way things used to be and love Trump for the fact of his unapologetic entitlement and privilege, which permits them to really let their freak flag fly in public. Between their aggrievement and gun collections and the Trump mafia’s legal jeopardy the second they’re voted out of power (when, mark my words, the Republicans who endorsed and enabled them will forget they ever knew such vulgar buffoons and get on to squawking about the deficit again), I think it makes it likelier than not that at least some places we see armed vigilantes like the ones I’ve described up above.

For the record, I’d love to be wrong about this.

***

So what happens when the armbands show up, the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries and irregulars in an undeclared war, men with guns and body armor and the unshakeable conviction of their own rightness? What are we going to do?

If all we’re relying on is the courage of individual voters then we’re doing a disservice to democracy, our country, and our chance of hauling this timeline back on the rails, of bending the arc of history back a little more toward justice and maybe saving some of the ecosphere for our descendents, who are going to judge the living shit out of us and have every right to do so.

Back to our hypothetical polling station, where the chill in the air has more to do with the presence of self-appointed poll-watchers kitted out for urban warfare than the time of year and tilt of Earth on its axis. What kind of response are we hoping for? Should we try and field counter-paramilitaries? Try the good guy with a gun thing? Doesn’t that make us like them? Would it even work?

Maybe we should just call the cops and hope for the best. Of course, the same elements ready to drag us back in time at gunpoint have spent the last couple decades infiltrating law enforcement. Either way, it’s not like the cops have been doing much when the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries show up to protest at state capitols. I don’t think we can count on them, and I sure as fuck wouldn’t recommend it to voters of color.

So what, then?

***

It’s 8:04 when six bikes pull up. The riders are masked for pandemic protection, but instead of guns they’ve got cameras. They take pictures of the armed vigilantes — in homes across the country, activists and internet sleuths work to identify them and publish their names when they get a match. Other riders have cameras that upload video straight to the cloud. The armbands still have the guns, but now they know the world is watching. There’ll be a record of anything they do or say tagged to their identity.

Will these Recording Angels stop the men with guns? Hard to say. But people are a lot less likely to commit crimes and atrocities when they know other people are watching. And when individuals are identified, and the consequences of their actions can be correctly assigned, they become a whole lot less likely to go all Kristallnacht on a polling place. Accountability is a hell of a thing.

In the story I’m telling, the vigilantes lose their nerve pretty quick. Because their power only derives from their guns, and despite that tingle in your balls you get when you pick up a loaded firearm, the power it gives you is entirely situational and not as great or wide-ranging as you might think. The six load up in their cargo van, and democracy carries on. 

The election is decided by voters and not men with guns and a bunch of privilege and inequality to protect at the expense of everyone else and the planet we live on. It’s as happy an ending as we’re likely to get these fucking days.

***

One last thing: if we don’t want the above scenario to play out — if we don’t want paramilitary vigilantes showing up at polling places for the purpose of voter intimidation in the guise of election security — then we’d better have our response prepared in advance. Volunteers, money, some degree of coordination, the technical infrastructure built in advance. Just like we know they plan to come loaded for bear, we need them to know we plan to come loaded for democracy.

I’m willing to bet if they know we’re serious, they won’t even show up. They are, many of them, cowards after all. That’s why they have to carry their guns in public in the first place.

Welcome To The Bitch Bubble

Before I get into the business of telling you why you should buy and read Lauren Dixon’s story collection, Welcome to the Bitch Bubble (and oh, how I love that title), there’s a certain elephant in the room to be addressed: namely that Lauren Dixon is my sweet Dr Bae, the love of my life, and my romantic and domestic cohabitee. How can I not but be biased?

And of course I am. But what you may not realize is that we knew each other for years before we ever kissed or even thought about it. We were in a critique group together, a sort of vicious writers’ circle where drafts are submitted and then vivisected in front of their proud, anxious parent, in the hopes of the next draft coming out better.

What I mean to say is: I’ve known and respected Lauren’s work a long time. If I didn’t, we would never have gotten to the aforementioned romantic and domestic bliss.

Now, let me tell you why you should read her book.

***

What’s the flipside of body horror? Vagical surrealism. What’s that? Well, like surrealism, it delves into the messy unconscious, the blood and guts and organs and bile beneath the clean white surface. What distinguishes vagical surrealism is its generative force: inside this womb are monsters born, fever-dream chimeras that howl and shriek and whisper secret truths none dare speak by light of day. Wild joy, profoundest despair, love and need and desire given flesh made of words and set free in a world seen anew through their eyes. They know things, these chimeras, these creatures of word-flesh conceived and born in Dixon’s mind. If you listen, they will tell you. They’ll cut you open in all the right places and plant seeds there, seeds that’ll grow into something unknown.

Whether it’s a girl sent back in time to the Catholic laundries, a yeti passing through portals in space and time, a woman trying to hold on to her adopted, eight-legged child or connected all her life to her mother through a never-cut umbilical or exiled happily to live among pigs, the strange landscapes Dixon carries us through feel real as pain, thanks to core emotional throughlines, visceral imageries, and a fearlessness matched by very few writers of this or any era. Laid bare in her wake? The pale pillars of patriarchy, crumbled and empty, revealed as more surface than substance, mostly layer upon layer of whitewash over a shrivel-dicked core of fear at the wild possibilities of the unchecked generative power of woman and womb. And there, among the wreckage and ruin and wrack, there you’ll find Lauren Dixon, playing unashamed as an unchaperoned child, gluing ragged-edge pieces together into new shapes with her own bodily humours, shapes that seem somehow both brand new and inevitable.

I’m telling you. You gotta check this shit out. It’ll do things to you, things you won’t even realize until later, or maybe you won’t. You’ll just be changed into something different, altered by your passage through vagical surrealism’s birth canal. As someone who’s already passed through to the other side, I’m here to tell you it’s worth it.

81yPaB-IDGL

The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.

How to Writer

So here you are, stuck inside – if you’re a person of conscience anyhow – for the foreseeable future. And while it’s a perfect time to tackle your to-read pile, or catch up on your binge-watching, maybe you’ve been thinking about starting that novel or memoir or other big writing project you’ve wanted to do for so long. To which I say hell yeah, go on with your bad self, let’s do this thing!

But maybe you’re not sure exactly how. You’ve got the passion. You’ve got the idea. But you haven’t ever had the chance to sit down and do the thing. You know it’s probably not like in the movies – it isn’t – but knowing what it’s not is only so helpful when you need to know what it is. ‘It’ being the kind of writing practice that can get a big project done. Because if you’re relying on flashes of inspiration and feverishly scribbling in a notebook til all hours of the morning to get you there, well, best of luck to you, cuz that never worked for me.

You may be asking yourself right now: ‘I’ve never heard of this guy. Who the hell’s he think he is?’ The answer is: no one of consequence. But I have written like three million words in the last fifteen or twenty years, and continue to write almost every day without much in the way of outside validation.

Now, one thing I can’t teach you is how to write. That’s something that can be learned, but not taught. What I can teach you is how – for lack of a better term – to writer. And yeah, I know, ‘writer’ is a noun. But it’s also, as we’ll see, a verb. And it’s the verb that makes the noun, not the other way around.

***

The key thing is to establish a writing practice, by which I mean an ongoing routine, integrated into your daily life, like going to the gym or to work. It means finding time – and space – to do your work, and keeping at it consistently.

Let’s break that down:

First, if you can, find or make a dedicated workspace for your writing. It doesn’t have to only be for writing – I am at my kitchen table, right now, because our house is small and that’s the space I have – but it’s good, in my experience to have a particular place you go to to work. Much of what I have to teach here amounts to self-programming, building chains of association and habit in your mind that will prompt your writing brain to kick in when you sit down at keyboard or note-pad.

For that same reason, it’s also good, if you can, to set aside a specific, regular time that you write. Lots of people will tell you first thing in the morning is best. Others will say late at night, when the day’s work and worries are done. Myself I tend to be most productive in the mornings, but the takeaway here is not that you need to write in the morning so much as it’s good to write around the same time every day, or every day you’re able to write. It helps prime your mind, teaches it that this is what you do this time of day, and it will, sooner than later, learn to grab its shovel and headlamp and descend once more into the word-mines to dig up today’s nuggets of gold and/or shit.

For now, especially while establishing your practice, there is no functional difference between shit and gold, by the way. You will also, for various reasons, sometimes think shit is gold and gold is shit.

Now for me, I like to strengthen those chains of association with the music I listen to while I write. By which I mean I have a writing playlist, which evolves over time, but which I listen to consistently and in the same order every time. It’s just as useful to have some ritual (Stephen Pressfield, author of the War of Art, which you probably ought to read, likes to read the invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey) or other that you do, no matter how simple or even what it is. It’s the ritual that’s key, the thing that signals passage from one kind of time to another, in this case not-writing time to writing time.

It’s important to remember: none of this is magic. It’s training and discipline, programming your brain to devote unconscious resources to the problem of turning the nebulous inchoate desire/idea/intuition into something that will move someone reading it, cause things to happen in their brain such that they, too, can begin to grasp this thing you’re reaching after. Okay, so maybe it is magic. But it takes a fuck-ton of practice to say abracadabra right.

***

Okay, so we’ve made time and space. We’ve got some ritual or trigger to activate our writer brain, and we’re ready to actually, you know, write. So what about that?

I said before I can’t teach you how to write, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you teach yourself. So here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way, that have proved useful in my own writing practice.

Hemingway famously said ‘Write drunk, edit sober’, which is pretty on-brand for such a famously alcoholic person. But his formulation is actually pretty useful, because writing and editing are two totally different things. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which you can know either a particle’s position or velocity but never both at once and, in practice, the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. It’s the same with writing and editing. Put it this way, you can create or you can judge. Trying to do both at once is a recipe for failure.

I’m going to set aside editing, because that’s a whole other thing that comes way later in the process, and has no place here, where we’re establishing a practice and finding our way to the end of a shitty first draft.

Yes, your first draft will be shitty. Accept it. Embrace it. It’s what first drafts are for.

Put it this way: it’s easier to fix something that’s broken but already exists than it is to conjure it up in the first place. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re conjuring something into existence that wasn’t there before. Even if there are other things like it, that you made it makes it different from what anyone else can make. So give yourself, and your draft, a break. You can get all judge-y later, when it might do you some good.

Should you outline? Probably. I almost never do, and when I do, it never makes it onto the page how I meant it to. But it’s a good exercise, and it can save you some time if you’re the sort of person who sticks to plans that they make. Me, I’m more of a headlights writer, in which metaphor the draft is a journey by car, driven at night: you never see farther than the headlights, even if you know which roads you plan to take and where you’re ultimately trying to get to. It may or may not be the best, most efficient way, but you’ll get where you’re going, and you might find some things along the way you’d have missed if you’re too stuck on keeping to your itinerary. Still, outlines can be useful, even if you outline as you go. Planning the next night’s leg, in this metaphor.

What if you get stuck? Unlike a road trip, you can totally skip these parts, and come back to them later, either during the first draft or later, when editing or revising. I’m not much for it, myself, but I know lots of writers better and more successful than I am who won’t think twice about writing “[insert awesome swordfight/space battle/conversation about feelings here]” and move on to whatever’s next. In fact, you don’t have to do the whole thing in order at all if you don’t want to. I mean, I do, but the purpose here isn’t to turn you into me, but to take what I’ve learned to help you find your own journey to the end of the draft.

Another thing you can try if you’re stuck is to switch your method. Writing longhand? Switch to keyboard. Tapping away at the laptop? Bust out pen and paper. The two use different parts of your brain and sometimes you can get yourself unstuck by switching which part you’re using to try and solve the problem.

If all else fails, take a walk. Even if the solution to your problem doesn’t come to you, it’s good to get outside and get some exercise.

One thing, though, and I can’t stress this enough. Even if you hate what you’re writing, and intend never to show it to another living soul, try and get all the way to the end before you go back and try and fix things. Yes, there are writers who do edit as they go, but we can’t all be William Gibson, however much we might wish we wrote Neuromancer. He’s also been practicing since then, so…

Believe me, I know it can be hard. But it really is best to write one draft at a time if you can, in my experience.

***

So what about inspiration? Where do the words and ideas and stories come from? The answer is mostly ineffable. But let’s see if we can’t eff it just a bit.

The usefullest way to think about this I’ve found comes from Kate Wilhelm’s book Storyteller, about the founding and early years of the Clarion Writers Workshop (which I attended in 2010 and highly recommend, but that’s a whole different post, and not all of it’s about writing). In it, she talks about what she called her Silent Partner (her real-life partner, Damon Knight, called his Fred). Your Silent Partner lives in your unconscious brain, which I’m convinced is about ninety percent of you, and is where that canard that people only use 10% of their brains comes from. You can’t speak to one another directly, but you can send messages across the transom, and receive insight and inspiration in return. Training your Silent Partner what to work on and when, and yourself to ask the right questions and listen close for the answers, is what I was on about earlier, when I urged you to set up a consistent writing practice.

I call mine the Tinkerer. He has a giant workshop full of half-finished projects (not all of them having to do with writing, either) and is easily distracted. If I don’t keep the work orders coming, he’s really good at wandering off and thinking about things like how to build and run a socialist restaurant, or how life might have turned out if I was smart enough to date that one woman in college, or whether I ought to start an online magazine in my roughly zero hours of spare time. And of course I let him, when it’s not time to work on my novel, because he deserves to have some joy, too, and there are only so many hours I can write before I turn cross-eyed and things get weird.

I do my best to keep him fed and happy. I read, I exercise, I stare into space for minutes on end, letting him put on his conductor hat and play with his train-of-thought set. Most of all I take him seriously – I take my work seriously – and in return he keeps whispering more crazy and awesome shit in my inner ear than I could ever get on paper.

***

I know, things got a little woo-woo there at the end. What can I say? As pragmatic a person as I am, and as much of the practice I’m trying to teach you is programmatic, even mechanical, at the end of the day, creation and creativity remain ineffable, part of the spark – be it magic, divine, or just random chance – that makes us want to take that nebulous inchoate something inside ourselves and wrestle it into a form others can understand.

If you want to do that, you can, but it takes practice, and discipline, and faith.

That’s how I writer, anyway.